THE TURNING POINT (Monthly Book Report: 4/18)

High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania (1958)
Glenn Tucker

The only book i finished in April was Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg, which I quoted from a couple of times along the way.

I could have quoted a lot more. Tucker’s history of the most important battle in American history yielded insights on nearly every page, even to a long time student of both the battle and the Civil War. The author was Indiana born and raised, spent his career as a Yankee journalist, and retired to North Carolina in the late forties to concentrate on writing history.

I mention his biography because this particular book could be accused of having a pro-Southern bias, especially in our current climate. Tucker is as prone to romanticizing southern gallantry and courage on the battlefield as some actual southerners have been. Here as elsewhere, it’s more a matter of tilting perspectives a bit, as opposed to cheering for one side over the other.

That said, it wasn’t enough to impede my enjoyment of Tucker’s account. If you want a concise, well-written, relatively brief but comprehensive, account of a subject everyone should know at least a little about, you could hardly do better.

As an example of Tucker’s grasp of the blend of events, gossip and coverage that go into making History what it is–including his own–here’s his take on a little known aspect of the Third Day at Gettysburg (and why it is little known):

Members of Davis’ brigade, this company was part of he regiment that pursued Cutler’s men north of the railroad cutting on the first day of the battle. The point of farthest advance was established–at least to the content of the North Carolinians, and the apparent satisfaction of the Gettysburg battlefield authorities of that day–when Lieutenant T.D. Falls, of Fallstown, Cleveland County, North Carolina, and Sergeant Augustus Whitley, of Everitts, in Martin County, visited the terrain, made affidavits about the point they had reached, and had it marked by the Gettysburg Commission. This testimony, according to Adjutant Charles M. Cooke, of the 55th, had other corroboration.

Taken with the advance of Lane and D.H. Hill in the pre-Manassas affair on the Peninsula, and the fact that Cox’s brigade fired the final round of the Army of Northern Virginia, this bold feat of the 55th Regiment went to establish North Carolina’s most cherished tradition of its part in the Confederate War: “First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg and last at Appomattox.”

Unhappily for the North Carolinians, the principal press accounts of the battle were from the Richmond correspondents. In one of the first conspicuous dispatches to the Enquirer, Pettigrew’s (North Carolina) command, containing some of the staunchest veteran regiments of the army, was termed “raw troops” and Pickett’s defeat was attributed to Pettigrew’s “faltering.” North Carolina has not yet recovered.

Against that gimlet-eyed view of the means and motives of nineteenth century Fake News, here is Tucker’s account of one of the battle’s most poignant anecdotes:

When the results were reviewed, it was recognized that Culp’s Hill had been the scene of some of the most determined, sanguinary fighting of the war. Geary always thought that the main battle of Gettysburg was won by Meade’s army on Culp’s Hill. (called by the Confederates “The Hill of Death.”)

Kane’s brigade found 500 dead Confederates in its front. Somewhere among them was a squat little man, Wesley Culp, a private in Company B, 2nd Virginia, of the Stonewall Brigade. He was twenty-four and because he was only five feet tall, Colonel Douglas had had a special gun made for him. Where he fell he could look at the house where he was born. Like Henry Wentz, he had gone to Virginia to sell Gettysburg carriages and Southern eyes made him stay.

No one who appreciates those two descriptions of lost causes–the public cause of a battle unit’s reputation and the private cause of a young man killed fighting with an enemy army to capture his father’s land at what was, literally, the Confederacy’s high tide–would be remiss in adding this little volume to any list of a completist’s interest in this, or any, “high tide.”

Same for anyone who knows nothing and is looking for a place to begin learning.

HOW NEAR A THING….

Rarely in warfare has the arrival of a single officer on a battlefield been more timely and consequential than Hancock’s at Gettysburg. One of his subordinates gave the picture: before he came, “wreck, disaster, disorder, almost the panic that precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere.” After he appeared on Cemetery Hill, “soldiers retreating stopped, skulkers appeared from under their cover, lines were re-formed”: in place of a rabble seeking Cemetery Hill as a sanctuary, an army with a purpose–under a leader who could lift it to extraordinary efforts–confronted the Confederates.

There was something dominating and inspiring about Hancock. The men of his corps were essentially the same as those of any other, but at the end of the war they could say that the Second had captured more enemy guns and more enemy colors than all the rest of the army combined. After Grant had taken command and had gone through the Wilderness, Hancock could tell him proudly that the corps had never lost a color or a gun, though oftener and more desperately engaged than any other. The Galena tanner was to use the corps cruelly at Cold Harbor, but it nevertheless finished the war, and with a record of a larger number of engagements and an aggregate of more killed and wounded than any other corps in the Northern armies.

(High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958, p. 192)

It’s a theme of the egalitarian part of American identity that individuals make no difference. One person is as good as another after all, before the tide of history as before anything else.

It’s a fiction of course.

Winfield Scott Hancock is now remembered by Civil War buffs, fans of Ron Maxwell’s battle films (Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) and virtually no one else.

And yet, at every moment when it seemed victory was in the Confederacy’s grasp during the crucial spring and summer of 1863, Hancock was there to save the day. Historians debate the “high tide of the Confederacy”. Some say the first day at Chancellorsville, some the first, second or third days at Gettysburg. At some point on each of those days, the Confederate armies seemed on the verge of routing and destroying the Army of the Potomac which was the guarantor of the Federal government in Washington D.C.

At the crucial point on each of those days, it was Hancock’s leadership that determined the outcome and saved the day. It was his men who rallied and staved off Stonewall Jackson’s charge at Chancellorsville after the Confederates had collapsed the Union flank with a brilliantly conceived and executed surprise attack; his presence (after George Meade gave him the command ahead of two higher ranking generals who were already in the field) that stabilized the panicked Yankee retreat on the first day at Gettysburg and held the crucial high ground for the Federals (according to Tucker, it was literally Hancock’s decision both to take a stand at Gettysburg and where exactly the stand would be made); his decisions regarding troop movements that stymied Lee’s furious attacks on both flanks on the second day; and it was Hancock who held Cemetery Ridge (where Lee had correctly surmised the Union line would be both weakest in manpower and least expecting an attack) against Pickett’s Charge on the third day.

Though he never commanded an army–his various superiors considered him too valuable to recommend for promotion elsewhere–one could make a strong case that Hancock was at least as essential to the preservation of the Union as Lincoln or Grant.

After the war, he was the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1880, losing a close election to James Garfield (the popular vote was the closest in American history, though Garfield won pretty comfortably in the Electoral College–naturally, allegations of fraud were thrown about in the close states, especially New York–there is nothing new under the sun). As the Hero of Gettysburg was a strong supporter of states’ rights, the opposition painted him as a man likely to hand back the Union victory to the post-Reconstruction South (which voted for him overwhelmingly).

Such is politics.

Garfield was assassinated a few months into his presidency. Hancock continued his military service until his death in 1886, by which time he had, among other things, served as president of the National Rifle Association.

Such is life.

A few statues have been erected in his honor and there’s an elementary school named after him in his native Pennsylvania.

Removing statues of Union heroes is a thing these days, so visit while you can. Because, however bad you think things are, you can rest assured they’d have been a whole lot worse without him.

TO THE AGE WHEN FOLKS GOT THEIR NEWS FROM NEWSPAPERS…(Late Night Dedication)

…the way God intended, and, unlike now, when the CIA approves everything first, we were easily deceived:

Oates (Colonel William C.) and Wadell (his adjutant) ate with a family where one of the young women, while expressing her loyalty to the Union, thought that the best way to stop the war would be for the armies to hang both President Lincoln and President Davis. According to the Alabama colonel, the people were “remarkably ignorant” of the causes of the war and thought it a quarrel between “two ambitious men.”

(from High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958)

Thankfully, with the Age of the Internet, we’ve moved beyond that kind of uninformed thinking.